Mathieu Deflem

This is an electronic version of an article published in The Sage Dictionary of Policing, edited by Alison Wakefield and Jenny Fleming, pp. 14-16. London: Sage, 2009.
Also available in print-friendly pdf format.

Cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2009. "Bureaucratization." Pp. 14-16 in The Sage Dictionary of Policing, edited by Alison Wakefield and Jenny Fleming. London: Sage Publications.


Bureaucracies are in generally terms conceived as organizations charged with the implementation of policies decided upon by government or business authorities, and adhere to a specific organizational design that is hierarchical in structure. Bureaucratic activities are formally based on general rules and standardized and impersonal. The concept of ‘bureaucratization’ refers to the organization of political and economic administrative institutions on the basis of the principles of a bureaucracy. The work of the German sociologist Max Weber (1922) has been most influential in introducing this concept and the theories that are derived from it in the area of state and market institutions, including police organizations. Processes of bureaucratization are relevant to the study of policing because the modernization of the police institutions has fundamentally involved an increasing development of police organizations along bureaucratic lines.

Historically, bureaucratization processes have been observed across a wide range of organizations in many societies. Despite national variations in bureaucratic organization and activities, most modern societies that are highly industrialized have historically undergone bureaucratization tendencies. Bureaucratic modes of organization have been imported in other countries as well, so that bureaucratization is a global phenomenon. The consequences of bureaucratization have extended far beyond the organizations themselves and have also affected the nature of governance and of social life in general. In the context of policing, bureaucratization refers to the organization of police organizations as bureaucracies that are hierarchically ordered, have formalized and standardized procedures of operation, and are impersonal by reliance on general rules of conduct. The bureaucratization of policing has important consequences for the functions and organization of police. . Special problems are involved with police bureaucratization in terms of the tensions that can exist between the efficiency and the legitimacy of police work

Distinctive Features

Derived from the French term ‘bureau’, meaning desk or office, and the Greek word ‘kratos’, meaning power or rule, bureaucracy in general refers to the power of administrative offices. The term was originally introduced in 18th-century France with a distinctly negative connotation to refer to the rigid manner in which administrative units could make decisions irrespective of their original objectives. A certain negative quality often remains associated with bureaucratization, but the concept is currently also used in a strict analytical meaning to refer to a particular mode of organization.

Weber identified seven central characteristics of bureaucracies: (1) bureaucratic offices are subject to a principle of fixed jurisdictional areas, (2) they are firmly and hierarchically ordered, (3) their activities are based upon written documents or files, (4) the executive offices of the officials are separated from their private households, (5) specialized training is required to obtain an office, (6) the official activity is a full-time occupation, and (7) the management of the bureaucratic office is guided by general rules. Among the principles that guide bureaucratic activity, Weber specified most centrally that the modern bureaucracy operates on the basis of a formal rationality to use the most efficient means given certain specified objectives. Weber conceived of formal or purposive rationalization as the most fundamental process characterizing modern societies. Analyzing the consequences of bureaucratization, Weber devoted most attention to the trend among bureaucratic organizations to achieve a position of autonomy so that the bureaucracy can operate independently from political oversight and popular control.

In the study of policing, the bureaucracy concept has been applied in the context of the agencies of internal coercion that are monopolized by the modern nation-state. Sanctioned by nation-states with the tasks of order maintenance and crime control, police organizations are arguably the most visible and concrete expression of the state’s monopoly over the means of coercion. Organized as bureaucracies, police organizations are hierarchically ordered with a vertical structure of a rigid chain of command. Thus modern police work tends to become highly systematic, whereby police officers handle cases on the basis of files (for information) and scientific methods of investigation and evidence collecting and analysis.

Bureaucratized police work also applies considerations of efficiency in getting the work done, at the exclusion of other concerns such as questions of morality. Police work is routinized on the basis of standardized methods of investigation, often strongly influenced by scientific principles of police technique, such as technically advanced methods of criminal identification and computerized databases.

Historically, the greater need for a specialized organization of crime control and order maintenance with the growth of modern societies has been among the most central conditions favorable to police bureaucratization. As societies grew in population size and density and experienced processes of rapid urbanization, industrialization, and technological progress, modern nation-states began to concentrate even more policy tasks in a centralized administration. Thus, specialized police institutions were established and, in the course of their development began to operate as specialized bureaucratic apparatus in both functional and organizational respects. Functionally, police institutions became responsible for order maintenance and crime control on the basis of a formal system of laws. Organizationally, police bureaucratization is reflected in the hierarchical structure of police organizations, the formal training of police personnel, and the emphasis on technically efficient means in police work.


Essentially two lines of inquiry on police bureaucratization have been pursued within police studies. First, normatively oriented studies have investigated the origins and consequences of an increasing reliance on bureaucratic principles in police organizations relative to principles of due process and the protection of citizen rights. In this view, the perceived negative impact of police discretion and accountability limitations can be attributed to an excessive bureaucratization of the police. Thus, bureaucratization is seen to take on the negative connotation it originally carried to become virtually synonymous with injustice and oppression resulting from an overly rigid organization of administrative activity. Police bureaucratization can then be criticized in light of principles of democratic control and accountability, and new post-bureaucratic models of policing are proposed that rely on insights from restorative justice and community policing initiatives to bring about closer cooperation among the police and the public .

Second, from a strictly analytical perspective, police bureaucratization has been studied in terms of the factual course and observable consequences of the increasing organization of police organizations along bureaucratic lines. A central concern in this respect has been the autonomy of police institutions as a result of bureaucratization in formal and operational respects. Formally, police bureaucratization implies a growing independence of police institutions from the governments of their respective national states. Whereas police institutions were originally set up to further the political goals of governments, especially in the context of autocratic states, they gradually developed a professional ethos to focus on distinctly criminal enforcement tasks. In operational respects, police bureaucratization involves police institutions gaining independence to determine the means, as well as specifying objectives, of their tasks.

Among the consequences of bureaucratization, police professionals can insulate themselves from popular demands in favour of adherence to an occupational culture that stands apart from the community and operates on the basis of principles of command, obedience and honour. Furthermore, increasing trends towards bureaucratization across the world have promoted collaboration between police organizations of different nations. Such international cooperation allows for limited collaboration between national police forces surrounding specific cases, such as the international rendition of fugitives from justice and has been organized on a permanent basis in formally structured international police organizations such as Interpol. Though justified in terms of the rise in international crime, international police practices that result from bureaucratization may lack formal legal regulations and operate beyond democratic control (Deflem 2002).

The autonomy of highly bureaucratized police institutions is not stable, but dependent on socio-historical circumstances, notably the degree of a society’s pacification. During periods of momentous societal change, such as international warfare, police organizations are typically pressured to reconcile their activities with the political goals of their respective governments. However, as police institutions have presently attained an unprecedented level of bureaucratization, they can also better resist any political pressures to remain organized on the basis of bureaucratic principles of professional expertise. Current conditions surrounding the spread of international terrorism have revealed the relevance of police bureaucratization as an important force determining the shape and future of counter-terrorism efforts and other dimensions of police power.

Associated Concepts: Culture, discretion, managerialism, performance management, professionalization, terrorism (policing of), transnational policing.

Key Readings
  • Albrow, M. (1970) Bureaucracy. New York: Praeger Publishers.
  • Bordua, D.avid J., and A.lbert J. Reiss, Jr. (1966) ‘Command, control, and charisma: reflections on police bureaucracy’, American Journal of Sociology, 72, 1, 68-76.
  • Deflem, M. (2002) Policing World Society: Historical Foundations of International Police Cooperation. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Deflem, M. (2004) ‘Social control and the policing of terrorism: foundations for a sociology of counter-terrorism’, The American Sociologist, 35, 2, 75-92.
  • Lipsky, M. (1980) Street-level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • McLeod, C. (2003) ‘Toward a restorative organization: transforming police bureaucracies’, Police Practice and Research, 4, 4, 361-377.
  • Skolnick, J.H. (1966) Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in Democratic Society. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Weber, M. ([1922 1978) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

See also my related papers on the history of international policing and my book Policing World Society.